Clarity Blog

Clarity Blog

Don’t Bomb Out – Remember SCUD

In China, the Yangtze river is flooding … a lot.  It does that pretty regularly, but this is the first time serious flooding has hit the river since the completion of the massive Three Gorges Dam.  According to the Los Angeles Times, some nervous eyes are now checking out the dam, which so far is functioning as it should and providing new levels of flood control.

Why does this merit the attention of Clarity Blog?  Well, let’s take a look at the last paragraph of the LA Times story:

The Three Gorges Dam, which spans the Yangtze, is holding back some of the flood waters. When the dam was built,  officials called the giant reservoir so impenetrable it would withstand the kind of flood that comes once in 10,000 years.

Over the course of rainy seasons after the dam was completed, officials started scaling back their claims and attempting to lower expectations, using qualifiers such as “one in a thousand” and “one in a hundred” to describe the  scale of floods the dam could resist.

No, we’re not criticizing the LA Times for its use of the word “impenetrable,” although it certainly was misused, as floods over-top dams, they don’t penetrate them.  Rather, it’s over-speak that’s on our mind; specifically, the Chinese officials’ efforts to stuff already-said hyperbole back into their collective mouths.  Can’t be done.  They’ve done a lousy job of messaging, but they’ve done a great job of introducing a little acronym we use around here:  SCUD.  Here’s what we mean:

Public Affairs “SCUD Words”

The language of public affairs is subtle.  Words that seem innocuous can be loaded with meaning, and can cause problems for our clients.  As sophisticated public affairs practitioners, we must provide our clients with messages that are tested by sensitively weighing each word.   Because misuse of these categories of words can cause our communications to bomb out, remember the acronym SCUD!

  1. Superlatives
    As PR people, we gravitate towards words like “biggest” and “most.”  That’s great for consumer PR; but a potential problem for Public Affairs.  We said an endowment would “ensure maintenance of open space forever.”  Uh-uh; it just assures that if managed correctly, sufficient funds should be available.  Do mitigation measures fully mitigate all impacts?  Probably not.  Does the EIR find the mitigation is sufficient, or did it suggest it?
  2. Credit Grabs
    Many of the benefits our clients’ projects offer are structured complexly.  Often multiple developers share costs or public funds are included.  A new fire station could include land from one developer, construction funds from two others, and partial state funding.  So don’t say our developer is contributing a fire station.  Donating land for a park may be done in lieu of paying park fees; it’s subtle, but opponents will point this out, so you should point it out first.

  3. Ungiven Presents
    Beware of words like “dedicated” and “give.”  Clients will often use these words themselves because they expect that when the deal is finally done, that park site or school site may be a give-away.  However, they may want to sell it, or create the sense that it must be bought in order to drive a harder bargain.  In your information gathering, ask specific questions and use the specific words gained from the answer.
  4. Done Deals
    Until the final electeds/regulators approve a plan, it’s a proposed plan.  The parks in it are proposed, the unit count is proposed, the amenities are proposed; the numbers are not yet final!  Another way to say it is, “As planned, the project would….”  Nothing angers elected and regulatory officials more than a developer implying that they will certainly approve a project … and you don’t want to anger someone with approval (and rejection!) authority over your client’s project!

Take out your key messages and read through them with the SCUD acronym in mind.  If you’re confronted with superlatives, credit grabs, ungiven presents and done deals, you need to whip out your anti-SCUD defense system, redraft your messages, and thereby protect yourself from possible  future attacks.

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